Citizens, mayors and democracy in the city

As part of Democracy Week in Bristol, last Friday academics from the University of Bristol and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) took part in a seminar on citizens, mayors and democracy in the city. The event drew on research co-produced with research partners in local communities, including local policy communities. The participation of colleagues from Mexico was made possible by support from the British Academy. In this post Jo Howard, the SPS doctoral student responsible for organising the event, gives her perspective on the afternoon’s discussions.

Both Mexico City and Bristol now have directly elected mayors. Both cities are experimenting with ways of engaging citizens beyond the ballot box. In Mexico City, citizens can take part in participatory budgeting. In Bristol, neighbourhood partnerships bring residents, councillors and service providers together to address local issues and make decisions about local service provision. The seminar explored to what extent these mechanisms deepen democracy. And if citizens have more decision-making power, how does this affect the role of councillors?

Dr Karla Valverde from the Centre for Political Studies at UNAM set the scene by outlining the evolving theory and practice of democratic engagement in Mexico. The country has moved from an autocratic one-party state to a more participatory state. However, politicians continue to be held in relatively low esteem and public preference for democracy over authoritarianism is by no means overwhelming. Nonetheless, notions of co-responsibility and participatory development have emerged strongly over the last decade. Dr Arturo Flores, also from UNAM, provided some insight into the successes and challenges associated with introducing participatory budgeting (PB) in Mexico City. He highlighted the need to give such initiatives time to develop. Now, after 3 years, the people of Mexico City are beginning to have more trust in the process and participation in the PB process in growing.

The seminar continued with presentations on councillors, citizens and democracy in Europe. Dr David Sweeting drew on cross-national survey data to discuss mayors and councillors across Europe. His key message was that many councillors appear broadly supportive of the principle of participatory democracy, but they are less enthusiastic about specific participative practices. Jo Howard’s presentation on Neighbourhood Partnerships in Bristol provided some theoretical background on why neighbourhood governance mechanisms in the UK lean towards or away from citizen participation in decision-making. Her case study findings point towards a growing interest in collaborative decision-making at neighbourhood level, and the need to re-define the respective roles of the councillors and residents involved. Professor Morag McDermont presented some of the key ideas underpinning her research programme ‘Productive Margins: Regulating for Engagement’ which is a collaborative programme between community organisations and Universities (Bristol & Cardiff). The project is looking at ways in which regulatory systems can be re-designed to promote engaged decision-making in politics and policy.

Several issues emerged in discussion. There were both shared themes and contrasts between experiences in Mexico and the UK.

The changing socio-economic environment is transforming the demands we make of local democracy. As public services are cut back or contracted out, there is a greater need – and motivation – for citizens to play a role in setting priorities and monitoring quality of provision.

Motivations for introducing participation differ. Anti-corruption has been a key driver in Mexico, while in the UK “small state” thinking has dominated, with a shift of responsibility and accountability to service users. Different starting points can have implications for the commitment to fostering greater participation.

In both Mexico and Bristol, there is significant political rhetoric around participatory democracy and the need to empower citizens. Yet councillors’ views on the forms of participatory democracy they are comfortable working with often diverge from this rhetoric.

Neighbourhood governance decentralises some decision-making and resources. It also involves creating spaces that can, given the right conditions, be spaces in which democratic conversations can take place. Collaborative research between academics and organisations at community level similarly involves the creation of shared spaces for discussion and reflection. Close attention to the conditions and behaviours that enable this to happen is critical.

Academics can play a key role in relation to these spaces and as active collaborators in these democratic processes. Knowledge is a key resource. Academics’ location outside of local political processes can also be important. In Mexico, the institution in which people have most trust is the university, and politicians are the least trusted. The role and responsibility of academics is therefore considerable. To what extent is this also true in the UK?

An interesting contrast emerged. In Mexico ‘citizens’ participate in participatory budgeting, whereas in Bristol it is ‘residents’ who participate in Neighbourhood Partnerships. Whether people are conceptualised as citizens or residents is important because participation as a citizen suggests a participation based in political and civic rights, whereas people participating as residents may be thought of primarily as consumers of services.

Local democratic practices are under scrutiny in new and important ways. The seminar sought to explore some key features of these evolving practices. And the scope for researchers to engage with this agenda is substantial. The benefits of doing so are considerable. The seminar demonstrated the value of placing experiences from very different contexts in dialogue. This is a dialogue that we anticipate will develop much further over the coming months.

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